June 17, 2016

The First-Ever Snapchat Movie is Here, and it's Horrifying—Go Behind the Scenes

We go behind the scenes of the first Snapchat movie, a real-time horror flick.

As Snapchat continues on its path to world media domination—10 seconds at a time—Hannah Macpherson is not standing idly by. The director has created the first-ever Snapchat film, Sickhouse, a horror story that appeared to unfold in real-time over five days. But followers of social media star Andrea Russett were none the wiser when she began posting the terrifying Snaps from her own account.

A long-lost cousin, Taylor, comes to visit Russett in Venice Beach, inspiring an impromptu road trip to a haunted house called "the Sickhouse." Then, things get dark. "Is this real?" someone wrote on Twitter. "Her cousin is so creepy."

"We had an opportunity to essentially drop a rollercoaster ride right into the lap of a waiting audience​."

While filmmakers have experimented with shooting with contemporary technological media—2015's Unfriended, for example, was shot exclusively on Skype—few have endeavored to marry a medium with a distribution method. Like a modern-day reincarnation of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Sickhouse tricks the audience into participating in and ultimately disseminating the story itself—via the very platform on which it was conceived. (After the initial Snapchat release, the filmmakers released an expanded 80-minute version of Sickhouse on Vimeo On Demand, which you can buy below.)

Giving direct-to-consumer a whole new meaning

Over the course of its broadcast, Sickhouse accrued an audience of 100 million Snapchat viewers who became increasingly concerned for Russett's safety. "I was interested in the idea that we could sneak up on people using Snapchat," Macpherson told No Film School, "because people trust that what they are seeing on their snap stories is real. I loved the idea that we could blur the lines between truth and fiction, and it seemed obvious to me that we should do something scary."

Filmmakers in production can begin to feel detached from their audience; it's usually a theoretical, nebulous entity that will only interact with the content in the future. By releasing her film on Snapchat, Macpherson effectively dissolved that barrier between herself and her audience. Sickhouse allowed her to receive immediate gratification as an artist.

"Everyone was hooked. People trust that what they are seeing on their snap stories is real."

"The response on Twitter as we posted the snaps live was so rewarding as a filmmaker," Macpherson said. "The audience clearly felt that the characters were fun and intriguing, the mystery and urban legend lore was working, the scares were freaking people out, and everyone was hooked. Even when they began to wonder if it was a movie, their interest didn't wane. The fans were ravenous for more snaps."

The film even inspired some narrative intervention from the audience. At one point during the release, the filmmaking team posted the cousin's account name. Shortly thereafter, fans began creating accounts in her name on Instagram and Twitter. Like real-time fan fiction, these individuals attempted to hijack the narrative. "One of the accounts even began posting in a creepy way as if they were actually Taylor," Macpherson said. "It was awesome!"

Credit: Indigenous Media

Casting for authenticity

Macpherson, who was a casting assistant on True Grit and In the Valley of Elah, knew that if her ultimate goal was sustained authenticity, she needed to find the right actors. But the "right actor" in this case wasn't just characterized by believability. The protagonist had to have a pre-established social media presence—in other words, be a social media pop star. What's more, he or she needed to be willing to use their account as the film's primary distribution platform.

Thankfully, Macpherson found Russett. "Andrea was a perfect fit because she is very talented and was as excited about the concept as we were," said Macpherson. Coupled with her intimate understanding of youth culture and ability to "speak their language," Russett brought nearly half a million Snapchat followers to the table.

"The 10-second clip restriction makes the audience feel like they are eavesdropping, so we played into that voyeuristic vibe."

Next, Macpherson cast Sean O'Donnell, an actor with a big Instagram presence who knew Russett personally. "He felt organic and believable as her friendand maybe more!that she would go camping with," Macpherson said. Casting Taylor was another story. "It was challenging because we needed someone totally unknown to play the cousin so that people would believe she was Andrea's family from out of town," Macpherson said. The director ultimately went with Laine Neil, a beguiling actress whom she had met at an audition years prior.

Credit: Indigenous Media

Shoot-to-Snap

Though Macpherson did prepare for the shoot, there were only so many elements she would ultimately be able to control. Snapchat has a 10-second video limit, so Macpherson and crew were limited to very short takes. Further, because Snapchat doesn't allow users to save video recordings, Macpherson had to make definitive decisions with her takes. If a scene went well, she had to upload it immediately, or else risk losing it to future sub-par takes. And, of course, there's that issue of aspect ratio: Snapchat employs a "vertical video" aspect ratio, which threw most of Macpherson's preconceived notions about framing for a loop.

"We embraced these as exciting challenges and used them to our advantage, especially when it came to the scares," said Macpherson. "I love that the 10-second clip restriction makes the audience feel like they are eavesdropping, so we played into that voyeuristic vibe a lot. The vertical framing is really cool; it brings an inherent creepiness to the shots because it's very claustrophobic and isolating."

"Even though I knew exactly where we were going plot-wise, I wanted the actors to live moment-to-moment."​​

Though Macpherson did write what she described as a "very detailed" script, the dialogue was largely improvised. The director deferred to the young actors to create a veritable Snap experience. "I asked that they called 'bullshit' if something we were doing felt false," she said. "They know best." (The script did include Snapchat specifics, such as the text onscreen.)

'Sickhouse'Credit: Indigenous Media

"Authenticity was my first priority, so even though I knew exactly where we were going plot-wise, I wanted the actors to live moment-to-moment in reality and for their reactions to be real," said Macpherson. Because the footage was being broadcast live directly after it was shot, the production assumed an off-the-cuff schedule. "We had to shoot at the exact time in real life that it was happening in the movie," Macpherson said.

This forced spontaneity gave Macpherson the unique ability to augment the film's plot in real-time based on her cast's performances and the audience reaction. "Since we were posting the story live, we had to tell the story linearly," explained Macpherson. "When we arrived at the haunted house, we were able to tell which story elements were resonating with the cast and the audience. Those were the ones we played up."

"We would snap entire scenes and post them on the fly.​"​

Each scene was approached with a meticulous calibration of character motivations and technical constraints. "The actors shot more than half of the footage themselves, so there was a careful choreography," said Macpherson. "Sometimes we would go snap-by-snap, but as much as possible we would snap entire scenes and post them on the fly."

"We were also intentionally only posting 70% of the story," Macpherson added, "so that we would have additional footage exclusive to the feature release. It took a lot of organization and quick decision-making."

'Sickhouse'Credit: Indigenous Media

Is Snapchat the future of filmmaking?

Macpherson didn't expound the virtues of Snapchat filmmaking as the future of the form, but she did emphasize its possibilities. "There are obviously limitations to telling a story on Snapchat," she said, "but as long as the medium is embraced as a tool rather than a hindrance, then I think all stories from any genre could be told on the platform."

In the end, Macpherson attributes the success of her film to shifting consumer desires. "We had an opportunity to essentially drop a rollercoaster ride right into the lap of a waiting audience," she said, "and it proves that people are enjoying storytelling right at their fingertips."      

Your Comment

18 Comments

Instant distribution to an audience that is actively participating in the filmmaking process, what a world we live in!

Very cool idea and excellent execution!

June 17, 2016 at 11:00AM

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Eric Buist
Producer | Creator
533

While one can appreciate the innovative use of a social media platform for storytelling, there should be some innovative storytelling to go along with it. Sadly, the trailer is something I've seen before…this is simply "Blair Witch" for a new generation.

June 17, 2016 at 11:35AM

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Luis Bohorquez
Cinematographer
120

Is this an interesting idea? Sure, never been done before and gives the viewers instant gratification. However, this is a gimmick, not the future of filmmaking.

June 17, 2016 at 11:58AM

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Alex Everingham
Video Editor
460

Seriously, guys, watch "Blair Witch Project" again, instead. I did recently after almost 20 years and it holds up so well, I was to my utter surprise legitimately amazed by it once more and now regard it as the most believable found footage film there is: No *clunky* exposition, no awkward explaining why there needs to be a camera. Believable actors being natural instead of acting 'natural', likeable characters even in their flaws, and an ambiguity that so many found footage films afterwards did not achieve or even pursue. Plus, that the whole of SICKHOUSE is filmed vertically tells me just one thing: All the characters in it are morons :D.

June 17, 2016 at 12:27PM, Edited June 17, 12:31PM

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This project seems like a step forward towards a new direction in filmmaking, and it is very loable the carefully and ardous production process involved in shooting a feature in Snapchat. However, I would only watch something like this in its native format and medium, as a serialized story that unfolds in real time. Releasing it as a normal movie just makes it an average respawn of "Blair Witch Project" with a cool gimmick in order to sell it. However... I guess the kids will love it.

June 17, 2016 at 12:42PM

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Julio Segura
Creative
74

Blair Witch much?

June 17, 2016 at 12:44PM, Edited June 17, 12:44PM

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chris
332

"Is Snapchat the future of filmmaking?" who thinks of these questions?

June 17, 2016 at 1:07PM, Edited June 17, 1:07PM

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Enrique Godinez
Director/Producer/Actor
472

Blair Witch on Snap Chat. Don't think these kids nor the audience were even alive when Blair Witch came out=) Then again, Blair Witch sort of sucked because you knew it was fake. I respected them for making it, much like I respect the effort here. But in the end, if you can sucker some of your audience into believing it's real, I guess its a job well done.

June 17, 2016 at 2:09PM

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Josh.R
Motion Designer/Predator
774

Ugh... Never mind the fact that this is an obvious Blair Witch ripoff, they seriously had to go and film the whole thing vertically? That may have made some sense for the people watching it 10 seconds at a time on Snap Chat, but it makes the film almost unwatchable.

June 17, 2016 at 7:35PM

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David West
Writer/Director/Cinematographer/Editor
957

Yeah, it's horrifying when people film in portrait mode. http://www.wired.com/2013/08/tnhyut-video-in-portrait-mode/

June 18, 2016 at 5:31AM

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Razor
VFX Colorist
232

How is this different from Blair Witch Project and those thousand found footage films?

June 20, 2016 at 4:23AM

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I think the most horrifying thing about it is that it's shot vertically.

Yes, I am old and, as of this post, if this is the trend for cinema, I no longer want to be part of the younger generation.

June 20, 2016 at 4:13PM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
820

You can't film horizontally on the smartphone app Snapchat, they mention it in the article.

September 8, 2016 at 4:29PM

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Using gimmickry to popularize your movie is cool.
They did it in the old days, too, with sound and color.

June 20, 2016 at 4:20PM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
820

Most iphoney people, even kids, know better than to shoot tons of portrait mode video rather than landscape. Suspension of disbelief is lost right there. I couldn't watch two minutes of this.

June 22, 2016 at 11:22PM, Edited June 22, 11:22PM

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November 24, 2016 at 9:33AM

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March 5, 2017 at 12:11PM, Edited March 5, 12:11PM

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May 18, 2017 at 12:37AM, Edited May 18, 12:38AM

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May 18, 2017 at 6:12AM

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